I wrote last summer about the issue of lawyers being more prone to commit suicide than the general population. CNN had a great story on the issue last week here. The video report is excellent, and identifies Mississippi as one of the states where there is an ongoing issue with lawyer suicides. Turns out that suicide is the third leading cause of death in the profession.

The article identifies increased rates of depression and substance abuse as the nexus between lawyers and increased suicide. I’ll get back to this in a second.

This quote from the article was insightful:

But what’s behind those extreme rates of depression and substance abuse? That answer is less straightforward, but the rampant, multidimensional stress of the profession is certainly a factor. And not surprisingly, there are also some personality traits common among lawyers — self-reliance, ambition, perfectionism and competitiveness — that aren’t always consistent with healthy coping skills and the type of emotional elasticity necessary to endure the unrelenting pressures and unexpected disappointments that a career in the law can bring.

Meanwhile, in early January a prominent Dallas plaintiff lawyer died in a gunfight with police that sounds like a possible case of suicide by getting shot by police.

I’ve thought about the lawyer suicide issue a lot, and I’m willing to take it a step further. I believe that among litigation attorneys, one of the main causes of depression and substance abuse is anxiety produced by the job’s “multidimensional stress.” I’m guessing that many litigation attorneys can identify with how wikepedia opens its entry on anxiety:

Anxiety is an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behavior, such as pacing back and forth, somatic complaints and rumination. It is the subjectively unpleasant feelings over something unlikely to happen….anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, and uneasiness, usually generalized and unfocused as an overreaction to a situation this is only subjectively seen as menacing….

I think it’s hard for lawyers to even talk about anxiety. Worrying about what is going to happen in cases is correctly perceived as part of the job.

What is going to happen next in a case? Am I missing anything? Have I done everything I can do? What is the jury going to do? How will the judge rule? Will they understand my arguments? What will that witness say? How will my client do in their deposition? How will I do deposing the adverse party? Have a asked for everything relevant in discovery? Will we win the case? Will we lose the case? Will I get fired if I lose? Will I look bad as a lawyer if I lose? Will I have cases to work on?

These types of questions can produce anxiety. And anxiety is unpleasant.

Why do many lawyers drink too much? For many, booze is temporarily taking the edge off their anxiety. But it’s only temporary. For some lawyers, the anxiety becomes suffocating and leads to suicide.

I wouldn’t be surprised if most lawyer suffering from anxiety don’t even know it. They call it stress and accept that it comes with the territory.

Want to experience anxiety? Go to the casino, walk up to a roulette table and bet a lot more than you are comfortable losing. That feeling you have when that ball is spinning around the wheel? That’s anxiety.

Unlike the spin of the roulette wheel, a lawyer’s stress and anxiety is not assured of being over soon. A lawyer may be anxious waiting for a ruling in a case. In some instances, lawyers and their clients have to wait months or even years for a ruling that could come at any time. And after this case is over, it’s always on to the next case.

I have personal experiences with anxiety. I suffered from it for a long time before I even knew that’s what I was feeling. I suffered from bouts of anxiety years ago when my first marriage was failing. But I didn’t know that what I was feeling was anxiety. I went to a doctor who listened to my story and prescribed an antidepressant. It didn’t help, since my problem was anxiety–not depression. I did not figure out that what I had experienced when my marriage was ending was anxiety until years later when the marriage was over and I had more self-awareness about my experience. Now I know what it was. 

Does my job sometimes cause me to experience anxiety? Yes. Has the job related anxiety decreased with age and experience? No. I don’t really think that’s how anxiety works. So for me, self-awareness is absolutely essential in dealing with anxiety producing stress in the profession. That and my sardonic sense of humor, which thank god my wife and friends tolerate and sometimes even enjoy.

I am sharing this personal story because I hope that it will help someone who reads this post. If you are an attorney who sometimes feels like you are suffocating from the stress, then you may have an issue with anxiety. Just knowing this is half the battle. Knowing what you are feeling helps you process those feelings. If you can’t manage the anxiety, then see a doctor or call the lawyers and judges assistance program for help. You might not be able to eliminate the sources of stress, but you can treat anxiety.

My fear is that many lawyers are where I used to be. Suffering from anxiety, but not knowing what the problem is. That’s a dangerous place to be.

Anxiety is usually manageable. But we need to know what it is we are trying to manage. If more lawyers were aware of their anxiety and took steps to reduce and treat it, we may have fewer suicides in our profession. We would probably also have less substance abuse in the profession.

The Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program is a confidential resource for lawyers and judges who need help. Chip Glaze is the director, and can be reached at (601) 201-0577.